Friday, July 28, 2006

The Underminer

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Copyright Michael Leunig

A few years back I was the quintessential couch potato. This wasn't my particular lifestyle choice but rather the start of a long struggle with chronic health problems. By early afternoon, my day would be over. Fatigue would roll in like a tsunami and the sofa would be my best friend. Dizziness and sickness meant that I'd struggle to get anything done. Life was just an existence.

After a while, I was prescribed steroids. The difference was unbelievable, best described as coming out of a very dark tunnel and back into the sun. From sitting on the sidelines, I was participating, experiencing and enjoying life again. My family and friends were stunned and overjoyed by the improvement in my health. It felt so good and I was really happy to finally catch up with a friend I hadn't seen for a long time. I was certain she'd be equally excited to see the change in me.

Her only reaction?

'Lucky that extra weight looks good on you'.


A back-handed compliment if ever there was one.

For those who don't know, one of the many side effects of steroids is the weight gain. It's something a lot of people who take these drugs struggle with.

I said nothing but I was hurt and I'm sure she must have sensed it. I've never been very good at masking my feelings. No mention of how much better I was doing, just a comment about my weight.

Later that night, I sat down quietly and tried to digest what had happened. I wondered if I was being extra sensitive? Were my own insecurities skewing the way I read the situation? But then I realised that this represented a longstanding pattern in this particular friendship. My friend was happiest when I was struggling. Any time that I achieved anything, I'd receive a put down, albeit very subtly disguised as a complement.

This kind of behaviour has been called 'undermining' and it can be hurtful, not only in the moment, but it can also ultimately damage self-esteem when it occurs repeatedly.

There are a number of ways to handle this situation. Over the years, by saying and doing nothing, I allowed this pattern to continue. I would feel bad, blame my friend for making me feel that way, but then forget about it. It was only when I had my 'aha' moment, after that last interaction, that I realised I needed to take responsibility for letting her continue to treat me this way.

I needed to let her know how I felt. The next time something similar happened, I called her on it. Quite calmly and unemotionally. She laughed it off. She dismissed me as being overly sensitive and unable to accept a compliment.

Leaving a friendship is a difficult decision to make and so I let things continue along for a while. However, nothing changed, the pattern continued. Eventually, I finally decided that the friendship was harmful to me and I gradually started putting more distance between us. The friendship gradually evapourated. Hard but healthier for me.

True friendship is one of the greatest gifts we can receive. Letting go of someone we have considered to be our friend is painful but sometimes it's important to evaluate our relationships honestly in terms of their impact upon us.

Signs that you're being undermined *

Receiving comments that have double meanings and leave you feeling confused and invalidated.

Receiving recurrent hurtful comments, often disguised as humour or as caring statements.

Feeling bad about yourself after spending time with the individual.

Having your feelings dismissed as reflecting your insecurity when you confront the individual about their comments.

Undermining is only one of many 'toxic' patterns of friendship. For more information on how to recognise such relationships and how to deal with them, check out the resources listed below.

* From psychologist Jenny Garth, Good Medicine magazine

Michael Leunig
How to handle toxic friends
Six types of toxic friends and how you can deal with them


Alison said...

Ah yes, HP. What a great post. And how validating for all of us who have been described as 'overly sensitive' and at the same time feeling we've just had a knife shoved in our tummy's.

psychgrad said...

Good post. I think it will ring true for many people - whether they've had an "undermining" friend (or just an unhealthy friendship in general) or experiences with chronic illness. I have also been on steroids. I always felt very self-conscious about the weight gain because it is pretty sudden and retaining water is never fun. I also felt uncomfortable when people made comments after I lost the weight (reduced the amount of medicine). Telling my I look much better now doesn't make me feel great.

Good job on distancing yourself from the unhealthy friendship - I've had to do that a few times and I know it's not an easy decision.

Dr. Deborah Serani said...

Wow, you have really been on a journney.

I experienced a major depression two times in my life. Once as a college student and then after the birth of my child. Talk therapy wasn't enough the second time around, so I added meds. Prozac was the med that was helpful in relieving symptoms. Still on it today, almost 15 years - - and sadly, the one side effect is the weight gain. But, I'd rather be curvy and plus-size than depressed.

When someone says something
"stupid" or tries to make me feel like I am being overly sensitive, I inform them about their own narcissism. Sometimes I do it in a clinical way, and other times I do it in an angry way. But if it happens more than once, I don't allow them into my life anymore. I've gotten very finicky with who I choose to spend my time with.

Wow, I really wrote a lot here. This sure was a great post.


The Little Student said...

What a great topic, and the way you wove your own story into it was very impressive. I too have had friends similar to the one you describe. Mostly, I chalk their undermining comments up to low self-esteem. Despite this, I have never been very good at confronting such people. Mostly, I just allow them to slip out of my life.

Palasandra said...

I think most people have suffered from this, not only from friends but teachers parents bosses, I have suffered this much of my life never being strong enough to walk away, and I also am chronically sick and cant afford this kind of behaviour in my life, but maybe its not all low self esteem on the part of the other person, maybe it´s Jealousy. as regards steroids
I too was on them and had an enormous hamster face that when i returned to UK my own mother didnt recognise me,

healthpsych said...

Hi Alison,
Thanks! Yes, I guess we've all experienced this one way another, whether from a friend, family or work colleague.

Hi Psychgrad,
Thanks for dropping by. It's so true about the comments when you lose weight too after dropping the medication level. It's like 'whoa, what were you thinking before?' I have a friend who takes high doses of steroids and she says people look at her because she's put on so much weight and just make assumptions. She says she's going to get a t-shirt that says 'I'm not fat, I take steroids!!!'

Hi Deborah,
Thanks for visiting. I'm with you. I'd rather take the medication and be curvy and living life. A very good strategy though to close people out who repeat such behaviour, I do struggle with that though sometimes!

Hi Caleb,
Thanks for the kind comments. I was unsure about this post because it is quite personal. Someone recently told me they find this blog kind of 'dry' to read and so I'm trying to change my approach a little.

Hi Palasandra,
Welcome! Seems quite a few of us have experienced this. It's so true though, when battling chronic illness, you don't need people like this in your life.

may said...

good for you...a person like that doe snot deserve to be called a friend...

jumpinginpuddles said...

why does it always matter what weight you are, or how you look surely if you are helathier in mind then it is better for your body ?
I also think maybe i get undermined a lot but just accpet it as part of life. Good blog.


Anonymous said...

I had a friend like that. She was there during an awful time in my life and I was so hurt when things got better for both of us and she pretty much dumped me. It's an indirect form of undermining, but it still hurts to this day. I think I was only a tool for her to feel better about her own life and when mine got better, she had no use for me.
Thanks for a great post. I can relate. I'm so sorry that you went through so much. Steroids can be a miracle drug can't they? I'm so glad that you are better!

healthpsych said...

Hi Amelia,
Thanks for visiting. Unfortunately, people can be very judgemental about weight but, really, I used this example from my own life just to illustrate how people undermine and this was just one sample of the kind of statement this person would make.

Hi Tiesha,
Exactly. That's another kind of 'toxic' (for want of a better word) friendship. Thanks for the kind thoughts, it's not that bad a thing in that I learnt something about myself through this and, really, it seemed relevant to the point I was making.

drytears said...

Excellent post. :)

This has really left me re-evaluating some of my friendships. :S

Hmm... Prozac actually made me lose weight. (Which is good because my mom gets pissed off if I'm on a drug that's making me gain weight, even if that drug is something I need).

healthpsych said...

Hello Drytears
Thanks for visiting. Yes, some friendships can have a less than positive effect on us, but it's important to remember too that sometimes it's possible people have no idea of how they affect us. This is why I approached my friend several times before finally giving up on the friendship.

drytears said...

The only problem is that approaching them can prove to be a very difficult task sometimes. :S

Anonymous said...

I just left a 14 year friendship over the exact same kind of thing, I felt so comforted by this blog, I've been blaming myself, but ultimately when I confronted my friend, she blamed me instead of stopping the behavior.